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I had only a short time in London last week – on a quick trip to meet director Guillermo Del Toro together with actors Tom Hiddleston and Mia Wasikowska for their Gothic romance/horror film Crimson Peak – but I just had to make time to pop into the National Portrait Gallery for their exhibition of Audrey Hepburn photographs.
So many of the images have become iconic and so it was great to be able to see the names of the men (they were all men) behind the lenses who took the pics, and where the Oscar and Tony-award-winning actress was in her career and life when the various shots were taken.
I used to have a book – a giant coffee table book given to me by a dear friend that I unfortunately had to leave behind in South Africa when I moved to New York – all about Hepburn. It was filled with things from her life – letters, photos, cinema ticket stubs – all detailing her career as a star unlike any other. This exhibition took me back to some of those items, but seeing the images, in a larger format, laid out together, the experience was almost like a lovely meditation. A chance to breathe in each image, and see how she evolved along the way.
Naturally, a few pieces stand out – the Jack Cardiff portrait from the War and Peace set at Cinecitta in Rome in 1955 and Norman Parkinson’s snap of her in a 1950s pink Givenchy dress, the designer with whom she had that lifelong fashion collaboration – are among my favourites. And the Breakfast at Tiffany’s images cannot be overlooked, of course!
All the magazine covers – from Harper’s Bazaar to Vogue to Time – made me think about the value being on a magazine cover nowadays and how it doesn’t play the same kind of role in creating a celebrities in today’s day and age. Hepburn is captivating on them all, but I particularly liked seeing her in natural surroundings, when she’s with a donkey at her farm or sitting with her pet fawn, Pippin. (Yes, she really had a pet fawn whom she “befriended” while shooting Green Mansions.)
I can’t look at images of her as a UNICEF ambassador on a visit to Ethiopia and not feel chills down my spine. Maybe it’s because of knowing the organisation helped her after World War II when she was a child in Arnhem in The Netherlands and suffered from malnutrition brought on by the ‘hunger winter.’ Or maybe it’s because you see the impact of time on her still beautiful face, and that cancer would take her life a few years later.
Perhaps it’s all of that – combined with something she said when visiting the Congo for The Nun’s Story. “Coming to Africa is certainly one of the greatest experiences in my life. Everything I see and feel is so completely new and therefore stimulating. Whatever the eye can see there is beauty in such a visual way.” She used the attention focused on her for a cause that makes a difference. And, though she grew up feeling otherwise about her looks, her beauty has been made forever undeniable in these images.